Friday, February 28, 2014
Pirate's Code, or . . .?
Many of us who've watched the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies have enjoyed the references to the "Pirate's Code". It appears early on in the first movie when heroine Elizabeth Swann tells her pirate captors that she demands the "Right of Parlay", invoking the Code of the Pirate Brethren; she demands to speak with the captain - Captain Barbossa it turns out. Barbossa's men honor the Code's demands, and Barbossa speaks with Miss Swan. Later on in the movie, however, when again he confronts Miss Swann but is "disinclined to acquiesce to her request" that the pirates leave the vicinity, he subsequently circumvents the Code, pointing out, "the Code is more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules". Miss Swann "gets it", when in a later movie, she tells the pirates "Hang the Code and hang the rules! They're more like guidelines anyway!" That phrase has weaseled its way into a lot of everyday language over the last ten years. And it has been applied to all sorts of rules, including religious rules that seem a bit inconvenient or outdated. In this I'm reminded of the phrase used any number of years ago, "They're the Ten Commandments! Not the Ten Suggestions!" And it sprang to mind last week when reader-of-this-newsletter "R" sent in a suggestion for a column/reflection: "I shake my head in disgust whenever I read or hear about so-called religious leaders who practice cafeteria religion by picking and choosing bible verses to support their narrow views." I'm not precisely sure to which "religious leaders" "R" is referring, but in my experience, it could be folks on either the left or the right! And such "cafeteria religion" is not confined to those who would choose "bible verses"; I've heard plenty of Muslim leaders complain about others who treat the Q'uran in the same way. My suspicion is that this is a problem endemic in any religious tradition that holds an (ancient) sacred text to be authoritative. Most of us, I think, engage in such "cafeteria" behavior depending on our cultures, or hopes and fears. The situation may be one in which we disregard one text in favor of another -- I can think of divine commands in the Hebrew Bible to observe certain feasts (Exodus 12.14, 17), which are then countermanded through the 8th-century prophet Amos: "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies" (Amos 5.21). Certainly context is to be considered! But, either verse can be extracted as "divine will". A different situation might be simply ignoring a command. For example, opponents of homosexual behavior often point to two passages in Leviticus (18.22 and 20.13). I've rarely seen, however, critiques against shaving or tattooes made with the same virulence, if at all (Lev. 19.27, 28). Many Christians bristle at the idea of "Christian communism" as suggested in the book of the Acts of the Apostles (2.43-45). Similarly, many believers (and I suppose not of just Christianity), soften the impact of some commands by interpreting them as metaphors (I wrote my dissertation on that phenomenon!). And it goes on. Biblical permission, or assumption, of polygamy is "hushed" up in our current social setting. The same can be said for the institution of slavery. Both polygamy and slavery are generally seen as out-dated institutions at the least, and barbaric and unthinkable -- even ungodly -- at the most. Yet the stories of the biblical patriarchs -- those whom God chose and instructed -- are suffused with both institutions. So are the stories "rules"? "Guidelines"? Or something else? As I suggested above, I think this is a phenomenon of which we're all guilty in one way or another. Most of us struggle to make sense of what "being in relationship with the divine" might entail. Some of us want concrete certainty, precise rules at all times and in all places. Others of us are more comfortable with ambiguity. Some of us believe that "Truth" was discovered or revealed once, recorded, and is to be followed eternally without wavering. Others believe there is no such thing as "Truth". And still others of us believe that we are constantly on the prowl for the nuances of "Truth", if such might be found at all. So I'm not sure I'd "shake my head in disgust" at such cafeteria religion; I'd have to shake my head with disgust every time I look in the mirror. I can't do that, or I'd never leave the bathroom. All I can do is approach my neighbors humbly, trusting that they are searching in good faith for the same kind of meaning in life as I. I may be wrong about that assessment, but I don't want to think so.